Editorial: The ‘sleeping giant’ is fully awake

  • Cale Makar during a Vermont at UMass Amherst hockey game in January in Amherst. AP photo

Monday, March 18, 2019

The UMass hockey program has seen success and made history before. A barely over .500 team reached the Hockey East Tournament championship for the first and only time in 2004. The Minutemen lost in triple overtime to Maine.

Three seasons later the Minutemen set a then-program record for wins in a season with 21. UMass earned an at-large bid to the 2007 NCAA Tournament, the program’s first taste of the national stage. The Minutemen upset Clarkson before losing to Maine in the regional finals.

What followed 2007 wasn’t any different than most years. Of the 11 seasons prior to 2018-19, UMass finished under .500 10 times. Only a .500 campaign in 2009-10 broke the string of losing.

Don “Toot” Cahoon’s 12-year coaching run of the Minutemen ended in 2012. John Micheletto’s four-year coaching run ended in 2016 with the program’s worst Hockey East record (2-19-1) since the program joined the conference in 1994.

Diehard fans felt what happened in 2007 could happen with regularity. Pundits often called UMass a “sleeping giant.” But like the New England black bear, success only made sporadic winter appearances.

Change happened slowly. Ryan Bamford was named UMass athletic director in 2015. He hired Greg Carvel away from a surging St. Lawrence program and what happened over the following three seasons has been nothing short of miraculous.

Carvel went 5-29-2 in his first season, but he retooled his roster with a dozen freshmen for 2017, most notably defenseman Cale Makar. The 2017 No. 4 overall pick by the Colorado Avalanche committed to UMass when Micheletto was the coach, but Carvel’s professional coaching background was a major reason why Makar chose to honor his commitment.

With the rookies leading the way, the turnaround from Year 1 to Year 2 was quick. The top five scorers for UMass were freshmen — led by Amherst native John Leonard — and they skated the Minutemen to a 17-20-2 record.

With growth and a new crop of talented freshmen in mind the Minutemen were picked to finish sixth in the preseason Hockey East poll. However, three games into this season the Minutemen blew the doors off those expectations with a win over then-No. 1 Ohio State.

The momentum only grew from there, along with the attendance (three sellouts) and national attention. UMass rose to No. 1 in the country twice, and has held steady at No. 2 for much of the second half of the season.

The program established a season record for wins with 26 and along the way swept home-and-home series against historic Hockey East powers Boston College and Boston University for the first time ever.

But that all came during the regular season, when there was a tomorrow. The Hockey East Tournament starts Friday and the Minutemen will host New Hampshire in a best-of-three quarterfinal series. From there it would be on to the semifinals and finals at the TD Garden.

Even if the Minutemen lose in the Hockey East Tournament they should earn an at-large bid to the national tournament. But Carvel and the Minutemen want to continue with their season of firsts and that means a Hockey East Tournament championship.

It’s been a remarkable season and one worth applauding. We’ve seen success from this program before, but it hasn’t been like this and it hasn’t been with a coach or a group of players like this.

While the most elite players are certainly in their final seasons at UMass, there are plenty of other talented players ready to carry the success forward.